FEMA Drops Bomb on Local Officials


Nearly five months after hurricane Ian, and three months after FEMA told local municipalities to use Lee County Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell’s home valuations, FEMA now says Caldwell’s calculations are invalid.

The February 14th letter sent to Lee County, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel officials will have a major impact on how homeowners rebuild, specifically FEMA’s 50% rule.

The letter from FEMA notifies municipalities they can no longer use the Tax Roll Value Letter produced by Caldwell’s office, which was prepared in October of 2022, after the storm. That Tax Roll Value Letter has been the basis upon which calculations of FEMA’s 50% rule have been made by the Town in reviewing permit applications for property owners rebuilding. The Town was using those calculations because that was the direction FEMA was giving them since early November. This week FEMA completely changed the rules.

FEMA has, all of sudden, and without a clear explanation to Caldwell, determined there’s a wide disparity in how building value adjustments were developed. Caldwell was never notified the letter was coming or given a chance to explain how he calculated his numbers. When he finally spoke to a FEMA rep this week and explained how he calculated the numbers, the FEMA rep he spoke with had no idea what he was talking about. Caldwell tried to explain to FEMA that the way he calculated the numbers has been the same way they’ve been calculated for years.

While the town is changing the way it approves permits (as of 2/15), Lee County is holding firm for now and will continue to use Caldwell’s calculations. Here’s what Lee County Spokesperson Betsy Clayton told us: “The county continues to have conversations with the Florida Division of Emergency Management and FEMA to determine what the appropriate just value calculation may be, whether it is a valuation offered by the Property Appraiser or another calculation.”

The town notified residents this week that, “Because FEMA cannot determine if the values stated on the Tax Roll Value Letter are acceptable, the Town of Fort Myers Beach is required as of February 15, 2023, to use the “building cost value” on the LEEPA.org website.”

The building cost value is one of the two building valuation options for determining if a building has exceeded the substantial damage/substantial improvement 50% threshold (i.e. the 50% rule). In all likelihood this change will result in many homeowners, who planned to fix their homes rather than demolish them, having a harder time staying under FEMA’s 50% rule.

What this means for Fort Myers beach property owners is that building permit applications for properties reviewed on or after February 15, 2023, will be reviewed using the “2022 building cost value” from the Lee County Property Appraiser’s website (LEEPA.org.) The building value found on the “Tax Roll Value Letter” that was produced by the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Office in October 2022 will no longer be used.

This may also require Fort Myers Beach residents to pay for two private property appraisals. From the beginning local officials have been advising residents to get a private appraisal because that is always going to be the most accurate number and, they say, accepted by FEMA. However, a rule in the town code may require residents, already strapped for cash, to pay for two private appraisals. If the first appraisal is 35% higher than the LEEPA value of your home, the town may require you to get a second appraisal. Town staff is actually working on ways to get that second appraisal requirement out of their ordinance.

Despite having representatives throughout Lee County, FEMA has done a horrible job communicating with local officials. There was no warning this latest change in the rules was coming and there has been no clear communication about the change to local elected officials. It has also left local officials wondering if the rules could change again.

The biggest unknown right now is what will happen to the homeowners who already have permits using Caldwell’s original numbers. Will FEMA go after those homeowners for using those calculations? FEMA can decide to kick Fort Myers Beach out of the national flood insurance program. If that happens it would be impossible for residents on the island to get a mortgage.

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers and Town Manager Keith Wilkins are meeting with FEMA at 1:30 today.


  1. Before Sept. 28, 2022, Our house was worth about $750k.
    In the October Tax Roll letter from the Lee County Property Appraiser our appraised value for the building only was $285,912, making our 50% rebuild allowance $142.956.
    According to FEMA our Building cost value plus Building Extra Features values 20% is $133,396 and our building allowance is now $66,698.
    Was anyone else able to rebuild their home for that amount.
    Our issue is self explanatory.

    • Yes my new building value went from $635k to $150k. Inflation does strange things apparently?!? If you view the FMB public print portal you see many remodel estimates in the $100k and higher with their new FEMA dollar allowance much less. Waiting to see how the town will refund permit fees for pending repairs that are no longer allowed. MAYBE a $1000 appraisal with get the building value higher but even doubling it may not get us enough funds to bring house back to preIAN condition or better based on new code requirements. Good luck.

    • A lot of folks are running into that.

      FEMA has been nothing but a cog in the wheel. Pay them but don’t expect to get anything but red tape and aggravation.

      My elderly neighbor and her disabled daughter are living on their porch. The single, middle aged woman who lives next to her got a manufactured home. No rhyme or reason to any of this.

      FEMA has done nothing but add hurdles and confusion for folks who are just trying to get their lives back on track and someone needs to take them to task.

  2. Why not just go by what Lee County is doing? Seems better to fight this battle in numbers and Matt Caldwell is the person educated in this field and knows how to do the calculations.

  3. Terrible news for anyone trying to rebuild under the 50% rule. But if this ruling is going to stay, does this mean our real estate taxes will be based on this number as well? Meaning cheaper taxes but less money for the town?
    Politics at work?

  4. In response to the article This rebuilding process is already so difficult! It is so hard to get permits to rebuild. The permit office, Lee County, FEMA, everyone involved should want residents to rebuild their homes and work with us to do so. We find nothing but hurdles every time we are one step forward they push us three steps back. It’s been a horrible experience. I can see why people are frustrated and want to sell their homes. The hurricane has already devastated lives, and losing part of your home or all of your home is devastating in itsself. Why make peoples lives so difficult when they just want to rebuild their homes and the community.

  5. Remember, it took FEMA 5 days to get water to the Superdome after Katrina. Since then anytime FEMA has been involved in anything it’s an absolute disaster.

  6. I sound like a broken record…. without BTR, and THIS Council of 5 and outstanding Mayor, new Town Manager (although interim)….. things would be exponentially more of a nightmare. Can you imagine being totally in the dark with all this cluster “you-know-what”?


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